The Collegian
Thursday, August 18, 2022

Students punished for chalk drawings at forum

A 52-piece box of chalk and an attempt at free expression led to a campus cleanup and some community service.

On an unseasonably warm Tuesday two weeks ago, freshman Michael Rogers decided to add some color to the forum with the chalk he had bought on a whim four days before.

He stayed there for nearly three hours, talking with people and reading, hoping to incite students to have some impromptu artistic fun. Around 2 a.m., he and five other freshmen and sophomores took the art to Wilton Way, where campus police stopped them. The case was referred to the Richmond College dean, who assigned each of the students five hours of community service with University Facilities, which had washed off the chalk by the next day.

"We were basically talking about how we don't really feel people have fun on this campus," Rogers said. "I think students are constrained, not apathetic -- they're over-programmed."

He said he wanted to "give students the ability to express themselves" because "there is just not a forum for enjoyable expression."

Few students paused to draw, but some of those who did created a shark, "King Duck" -- one of the geese who trolls Westhampton Lake -- and a 15-foot pterodactyl in a tropical setting. Rogers drew a sun and played tic-tac-toe. He estimated that of every 10 people, he would hear one consider stopping with a friend but decide there was no time for it.

"A child walked up and started drawing with the chalk," Rogers said. "I just thought it was the coolest thing, watching this little kid having the kind of fun we need to have more often, just on his own without having to think about it."

Later that night, Rogers and his friends wrote things on the path leading down to the forum such as "love yourself," "joy," "relax," "we need canoes in the lake" and "really like it here?" Someone also drew a check to symbolize what he felt was money going toward creating an Ivy League image.

The charge would have been vandalism had the school decided to formally punish the students, but Richmond College Dean Joseph Boehman said it didn't make sense to do that for chalking. The choice was made to have the students assist facilities to make up for the work they had caused them in the cleanup.

"I think the aims of what they were trying to do, talking about bringing more joy onto the campus, I think that's a great thing," Boehman said. "It was just the method of chalking it on the sidewalk was probably not the best."

Would the response have been different if they drawings had been made somewhere else?

"If it were somewhere else, on the asphalt around the lake, it probably wouldn't have made as much of a difference," Boehman said. "Yes, absolutely chalk is temporary, but from our standpoint, you look at the overall aesthetic of Wilton Way and of the forum -- it's kind of a formalized place."

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The soapbox in the forum, already chipped in multiple places, sat overlooking the entire affair.

"It's ironic," Rogers said. "Maybe one day the school will allow us to create our own soapbox."

Other colleges have specific venues for free expression. North Carolina State University has a Free Expression Tunnel in which students write and paint what they want, so long as it is not offensive or hateful.

"We don't necessarily have a forum like that here, and maybe that's a question that needs to be raised," Boehman said. "I think it would be a really good thing for the community to grapple with."

The only space where chalk drawings are allowed is on the path between Tyler Haynes Commons and Boatwright Memorial Library. Groups and organizations can reserve one of four spots by submitting drafts of their messages for approval.

Reservations are open to departments and organizations, but usually not to people, according to John O'Donnell, associate director for Student Activities. He said he assumed this was "because individual messages aren't as important as university-related stuff"

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